When it comes to changing the behaviour of consumers in using energy, we must first harness the power of education. That’s the view of National Grid’s Amy Gent, Strategy Analyst, Energy Strategy & Policy.
As the UK strives to meet its challenging 2050 carbon emissions targets, Government energy policy is under intense scrutiny. While the influence of policymakers is clear, the reality is that the behaviour of consumers holds the key to unlocking a more sustainable future.
To put the challenge into context, the UK is committed to reduce carbon emissions by 80% of 1990 levels by 2050. While this date seems a long way off, as a country we nonetheless need to change the collective mindset on energy consumption and we need to do it quickly.
Achieving such a dramatic reduction requires a complete shift in the way we think and act so that we become more efficient in our energy use, reduce our consumption levels and embrace low carbon energy. The plain truth is that if consumer behaviour does not change, the target will be missed.
The education challenge
So, how do we get there? The Office for National Statistics reports that there are just over 26 million households in the UK and in the region of five million businesses. Mobilising even a fraction of this vast body of people in homes and workplaces up and down the country is a huge challenge.
Asking people to change their behaviour requires far greater emphasis on education, so that consumers understand first of all why change is necessary, how they can make a difference personally and crucially, what the benefits will be.
History tells us that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach is ineffective; instead what is needed is a tailored programme of education targeted at specific consumer groups. Broadly speaking, we need to find the right way to connect with the consumers of today and tomorrow.
Reaching out to consumers
Educating existing consumers to act differently at home and at work is one strand of this effort. Workplace initiatives that inspire change, education packs for households with practical guidance for adults and children, support for the elderly and targeted help for people in fuel poverty; these are all actions that can make a real difference.
The second aspect (and arguably an area of even greater potential impact) is to reach out to schoolchildren – the next generation of consumers – by making sure that energy issues are embedded in the national curriculum. Pupils should be enthused about the impact they can have with messages being reinforced from primary school right through to school-leaving age.
In the same way that greater financial awareness is now seen as a pivotal part of a child’s education, energy awareness needs to have equal prominence. Taking this approach will equip tomorrow’s consumers with the knowledge and the mindset to act differently when it comes to using energy.
Can education really bring about a shift in people’s behaviour? The short answer is yes, for example where information campaigns in the past have encouraged people to recycle at home or pick up litter and ‘Keep Britain Tidy’.
It would be wrong to draw an absolute parallel with the debate on energy, but what these examples and other recent campaigns such as the digital switchover show us is that finding the right message, investing in education and making it real for people can play an important role in helping to change behaviour.
Taking the next step
National Grid recognises the part it can play in the sphere of education and we continue to explore opportunities with different partners. To make a sustainable difference however, what really needs to happen is for the wider industry, education specialists, consumer groups and communities to come together, share expertise and develop education materials that inspire consumers and empower them to change their behaviour.
In addition, we would like to see energy issues become part of the national curriculum in our schools and we advocate a partnership approach between schools, workplaces and communities that encourages greater collaboration in this area.
Education is not the only answer, but it most certainly forms a big part of the solution.
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